Attacks by activists on famous paintings are decreasing support for the fight against climate change, study finds

Attacks by activists on famous paintings are decreasing support for the fight against climate change, study finds

Protesters from the Ultima Generazione group hug a wall after throwing soup at Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Sower at Sunset’ on November 4 in Rome. (Laura Lezza/Getty Images)

According to a new survey conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Republicans, Democrats, Independents: In all cases, people reported that these actions made them less likely to support climate action,” said Michael Mann, professor of earth and environmental sciences at Penn and co-author of the study, to Yahoo News. . “People are discouraged by it and as a result they are less likely to support the cause of people who are protesting.”

Researchers asked more than 1,000 Americans if they approved of using tactics such as cutting off traffic or sticking to a board. “A plurality of respondents (46%) report that these tactics decrease their support for efforts to address climate change,” the researchers wrote. “Only 13% say they are increasing their support.” Forty percent said such protests had no effect on their opinions.

The study was undertaken after activists from British environmental group Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ painting, on display at the National Gallery in London. Two activists then stuck to the wall next to the painting and shouted, “Are you more concerned about protecting a painting or protecting our planet and people? The painting, which is encased in glass, was not damaged.

Throughout October and November, members of Just Stop Oil also repeatedly blocked traffic on London’s roads and motorways.

Protests targeting art also continued. In late October, two activists from climate action advocacy organization Last Generation threw mashed potatoes at a Claude Monet painting that sold for $110.7 million in 2019 and are glued to the adjacent wall of the Barberini Museum in Potsdam, Germany. A few days later, a protester at a museum in The Hague, Netherlands stuck his head to Johannes Vermeer’s painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. And on Tuesday the group Last Generation Austria tweeted a video of some of its members pouring a black liquid on a painting by Gustav Klimt in the Leopold Museum in Vienna.

Just Stop Oil climate activists block traffic in London's Trafalgar Square on October 6.

Just Stop Oil climate activists block traffic in London’s Trafalgar Square on October 6. (Kristian Buus/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Although there is no direct link between these artworks and climate change, activists have used the paintings with the apparent aim of raising awareness of rising global temperatures. But the protests have drawn criticism from many in the art world, and even some members of the climate community.

Last week, the directors of 92 leading art museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, signed a joint statement condemning the attacks against works of art and asking activists to stop. Although none of the works have been damaged at this time, the makers have warned that they could be. “Responsible activists underestimate the fragility of this irreplaceable work, which must be preserved as world cultural heritage,” they wrote. “As directors of museums entrusted with the works, we were deeply shocked by their risky endangerment.”

On Thursday, art historian and climate activist Lucy Whelan wrote in the Guardian that throwing objects at art is counterproductive. “These attacks appear to be part of a helpless career towards climate chaos,” she wrote.

The results of the University of Pennsylvania survey confirm this hypothesis. However, the results were not the same across all demographic groups. Republicans responded the most negatively to these climate protests, with 69% saying they had decreased their support for climate action, while only 9% said they had increased their support. Twenty-seven percent of Democrats said the protests reduced their support, while 21% said they increased it. Among independents, 43% reported a decrease in support and 11% reported an increase.

The researchers found that telling respondents that the painting was safe and sound did not have a statistically significant effect on survey results. Neither Just Stop Oil nor Last Generation immediately responded to Yahoo News’ requests for comment.

Critics of the Penn Inquiry have countered that a recent online poll in the UK found that two-thirds of Britons support “non-violent direct action to protect the UK’s nature”. But, notes Mann, not all direct actions are the same.

“It’s one thing to ask people if they support nonviolent protests in a generic way,” Mann said. “But that doesn’t capture the very off-putting nature of recent mock art defacement actions, which seem to cause widespread revulsion among much of the public, in part because there’s no logic or link in there. People wonder, what did Van Gogh do to deserve this wrath?

Climate campaigners Just Stop Oil cling to a Van Gogh painting at the Courtauld Gallery in London.

Climate campaigners Just Stop Oil cling to a Van Gogh painting at the Courtauld Gallery in London. (Kristian Buus/In pictures via Getty Images)

Some climate activists have applauded the recent protests. “This is exactly the kind of activism we need the most,” wrote Andreas Karelas, the founder and of RE-volv, a climate justice nonprofit, in an op-ed for The Hill. Comparing climate actions to the civil disobedience of civil rights activists such as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Karelas argues that “nonviolent forms of direct action are the most effective tools we have for changing society” .

“I believe the climate crisis has progressed to the point where we need to take disruptive action to try to change course on a planet that is becoming increasingly unlivable,” wrote Aileen Getty, oil heiress and environmental philanthropist. , in the Guardian.

Mann does not dispute that the urgency of climate change requires direct action. But, he said, blocking commuters or defacing artwork bears no relation to the problem that, say, civil rights protesters sitting at a separate food counter had.

“The hearts of these young people are in the right place,” Mann said. “They fear for their future, and rightly so.”

But, he argued, they should choose “actions where the goals make more sense.”

“There are bad actors and bad guys in the climate space: fossil fuel companies engaged in greenwashing campaigns, plutocrats funding black money climate denial and delay campaigns, manufacturers gas-guzzling vehicles, the list goes on,” Mann wrote Tuesday in an op-ed for Time magazine. “A public opinion survey conducted earlier this year by Yale University researchers and George Mason finds that direct actions that target bad actors (e.g., billionaires who fly fossil fuel-guzzling private jets) garner substantial support.”


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